For GORGEOUS Magazine, 8/04
There’s something rather surreal about all this, talking with Zumanity’s omnipresent “Mistress of Seduction,” infamous New York drag performance artist and torch singer Joey Arias, for Gorgeous. Seated on one of the red velvet loveseats that make up the front row of the show’s Paris-in-the-20s-inspired showroom at Las Vegas’ New York-New York Hotel, my subject stays busy drawing his profile on the back of my t-shirt with a Sharpie as we speak. Joey, whose longtime Thierry Mugler-clad alter ego Mitzi La Mouche resembles a cross between Vampira and Betty Paige, is without make-up as he draws.
Seeing him for the first time in the “raw,” his long black hair piled on top of his head in a haphazard bun, he instantly recalls the inexplicable earthy beauty of Anna Magnani squinting into the sun as she wipes her glistening brow after a day in the fields—but never forgetting exactly where the camera is located.
“This is my home,” Joey says as he reverently surveys the lovely stage looming just above us, created especially for this production’s debut last September. “I really love my job. I love being a part of this show.” The buzz was enormous last fall for Zumanity, which joined “O” at the Bellagio and Mystere at Treasure Island to become the third triumphant Cirque du Soleil permanent attraction to energize the evermore-dazzling Vegas Strip.
Still, aside from the splendidly erotic and exciting world Joey and the Cirque create twice nightly for 1,500 astounded and often visibly aroused patrons, he feels a bit conflicted about living in this notorious adult Disneyland smack-dab in the middle of the Nevada desert.
“I literally go back to my hotel room, eat, sleep, watch TV, go to the gym right in the building,” he admits. “That’s my life. I don’t go out. I get headaches in the sun. Everything’s too hot, too flat, too bright. It’s a mind-fry here. I stay inside or in the dark, like some vampire, you know? But see, Lady Bunny pulled me aside before I left New York and said, ‘You are so wild, but when you go to Vegas, use the time to refocus that energy and write and leave all that behind—it’ll come ‘round again someday.’
“So I thought, coming from Bunny, you know, that’s gotta be, like, profound, right? And then Thierry Mugler told me, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Do the show, go home. When you get to the theatre, that’s your party.’ So that’s what I do.”
Besides his meteoric success as the star of Zumanity, Joey’s new self-professed monk-like focus—a picture difficult to conjure—has fostered the recent publication of The Art of Conversation, a compilation of his most intriguing celebrity interviews from the days he moonlighted (sunlighted?) as a contributor to Paper Magazine. He’s also preparing to cut a CD made up of songs about his Vegas experiences that didn’t make it into the show, titled Tales of the Astonishing She-Monster.
“Honestly, this is the last place I would have chosen to live, but I’m doing this show and it’s nowhere else but right here. I still choke up with nerves backstage each time, then I hit this stage and…” Joey takes an elaborate but heartfelt intake of breath, recovering remarkably fast.
“I’ve only been here a year,” he snorts, “and I’ve been kicked out and banned from every gay bar in this city already, so my entire world is Zumanity and my friends are my Cirque family. But hey, I’ve been traveling all my life bringing me to the world, now I’m here in this beautiful house, so the world can come to me for a change. And you know what? They do!”
There was some collective baited breath held by the castmembers of the Cirque’s trio of Vegas companies a few months ago, however, when an HIV-positive gymnast from “O” filed a highly publicized suit against the Montreal-based organization after being fired, presumably because of his health status. The shows were even picketed, which put gay castmembers like Joey in an extremely awkward position. “First of all, those people hassling the Cirque were really militant types. They were what I call gay Nazis. And they should have gotten the story straight before jumping the gun. It was bullshit.”
Joey and anyone I know who has ever worked for the Cirque have always professed that their employers are the most supportive, most non-judgmental, most open minded and free thinking people anyone could ever hope to have sign their paychecks. And when the crisis began, the organization immediately went into high gear in an effort to help their employees cope with the situation, bringing in an AIDS doctor to talk to everyone and explaining everything that was happening with honesty and understanding.
“See, the guy was, like, doing an act where there was a lot of sweat and sometimes blood. An aerial thing, catching people. People he worked with didn’t want to be… well, I wouldn’t want to be in that situation either, would you? They offered the guy a change of job but he didn’t want that.” Of course, all hell broke loose when he filed a complaint and lawyers got involved, but eventually a settlement was reached.
“From what I heard, the guy was sorry it went that big but, like everything else, this was new to everybody—him, us, even this organization, which has grown big so quickly.” Bottom line, there are all types working on the ever-growing Cirque du Soleil team, every kind of sexuality, and Joey says easily that any thought of his bosses being homophobic is ludicrous. “I mean, look at me, right? The most outrageous drag queen from the New York underground scene they could possibly have hired! The gay people who work for the Cirque were behind the Cirque all the way. No one treats their employees better or more fairly.”
Joey finds himself in a unique position in Vegas, starring in a continuously sold out show that markets its rampant celebration of human carnality in a town where Linda Rondstadt was recently booed off a stage for dedicating a song to Michael Moore. “Being gay and outspoken and doing drag on top of that, it’s amazing what I can get away in Zumanity.”
This is something which included, the last time I attended, Joey asking two young straight farm boys in the front row if they were lovers. “They were in that big spotlight and they were freaking out, weren’t they?” Joey laughs heartily, throwing his head back at the memory. Still, he finally that night managed to persuade the boys to tentatively kiss before he moved on to other prey, quipping into his microphone as walked away, “Well, I guess there won’t be a pearl necklace in it for you tonight.”
He also at one point suggested to another hunky patron that he’d like to [insert popular slang expression for oral copulation here]. Zumanity isn’t a sing-along Sound of Music by any means—and Joey Arias would scare the hell out of those Von Trapp kids anyway.
“I realized early on, though, that I can’t go too fast and I can’t say too many really clever things. One night, there were these two really, really old ladies right off the bus, you know, sitting right here where we are,” remembers Joey. “I asked the first one if she liked orgies and she answered, ‘Depends.’ I said to the other one, ‘How about you?’ and she says, ‘Depends’ too. So I said, “Well, I’ve got a box of ‘em in the back if you want to borrow some.’ I waited for the audience to get the joke, but it took a long, long time. Most people aren’t used to my kind of humor. It’s gotta be pee-pee and poo-poo and ka-ka-doodle-doo. And I have to be, like, the bad child for them to accept me.”
But for all the delicious abandon of his onstage freedom, Las Vegas remains a conundrum for Joey. “They call it Sin City, they say ‘Everything in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ but I haven’t seen that side anywhere, especially at gay clubs. They say, ‘This isn’t New York or Berlin, you know—we don’t do those things in Vegas. It’s all such hype! Our show is the only one doing what we say we do, not kinda doing it, you know?
“There’s lot of the old Vegas tittie stuff still, but we’re trying to reinvent that image with a new lacquer, a new color, a new classiness. It’s truly as they call it, ‘The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil,’ the off-branch of the circus tree.” And, he hopes, they’re making human sexuality beautiful again, not the sordid and sad facsimile often presented by modern society’s narrow Bush-inspired view of what’s normal.
Often, however, it’s the audience members who are the bad children. “I swear, women take their tits out all the time and guys you’d never expect to do such a thing lift their jackets and show me their hard-ons. All the time, all the time! And in those back seats where it’s really dark back there, you’d be amazed what goes on.” According to Joey, the best thing is that Andrew Watson, the Cirque’s innovative Director of Creation who spawned Zumanity, “wanted that vibe.” It’s something meant to conjure Paris in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec or the sexual abandon of the late 1960s.
“That’s why I wrote in my song I do, Sex is Beautiful, ‘In my whorehouse of love, our bodies are in paradise all through the night.’ This showroom is my whorehouse of love.” And people are surprisingly accepting of the show’s emphasis on physical diversity and gender issues—maybe because they’re too shocked to move.
“In the beginning, when we first opened, some people walked out before they knew what it was going to be about—hell, before we knew what it was going to be about. But now the word is out. I tell people to think of it like a garden. There are weeds, trees, roses, gardenias. It’s like sexuality. Everything doesn’t grow the same.” Put all the elements together, Joey points out, and a garden’s variations can be a thing of great beauty.
“I’m just happy to be gay, in these times!” Joey suddenly screams with a mad Tullulah-esque skyward sweep of his green-glitter polished nails. “I love that the envelope is still being pushed and I’m helping to do the pushing. There’s always someone’s eyes you can open up and I get to try to do that for almost 3,000 people every night. The real message for Zumanity is that we’re all of us—all of us—under one umbrella.”